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India has been the most ethnically diverse nation on Earth for many centuries, with over two thousand different ethnic groups. Ethnic categories exist based on language, religion, geographical ancestry, and other factors.

The Most Diverse Nation on Earth

When you hear the term ”ethnic diversity”, what country do you think of? The USA? Are you surprised to learn that the most ethnically diverse country on Earth is India? You have to look to the entire continent of Africa to find more native ethnic diversity than in this single country. Nor is this a recent phenomenon.

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India has been extremely diverse for centuries. How this has come about is a fascinating story.

What is Ethnicity?

Before we can explore the story of India, we have to define what we mean by ethnicity.

Anthropologists define ethnicity through a shared membership in an important cultural grouping. Ethnicity, like race, is a cultural category, not a biological one. Co-religionists can form an ethnic group, because members of a religious community share many cultural values, especially in India where religious identity is such an important part of personal identity.

Ethnicity can also be a function of the common culture of a geographical area. For example, the people of Bengal wear a distinctive style of clothing and speak one of the dialects of the Bengali language.People who live in a geographical area may also have a common in-migration history; yet the most common way to define an ethnic group is through the language one speaks.

With the exception of highly educated mobile professionals living in the major cities, most Indians live in the geographical area of their ancestors, surrounded by neighbors who share their language, customs, religion, and other aspects of ethnicity.


Have you ever watched an Indian Bollywood movie? Do you remember the bewildering array of language options? In addition to Hindi, the native language of the people who live near Delhi, the historical capital, you might have heard Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Kannada, and Malayalam- the principal native languages of the subcontinent.The family of languages native to South India is very different from the family that the languages of Northern India (and, interestingly, English) belong to. Large-scale migration into India from Central Asian people of a very different appearance, language, family, and customs, created this diversity. The Indo-European languages, including Hindi, are native to the north, and the Dravidian languages, including Tamil and Malayalam, are native to the south. In addition to these two major language families, India also includes members of five other, unrelated language families, mostly situated on the edges of the country near the Himalayas, in the northeast and the west, and on islands like the Andamans.

Keralans fishing.  Dravidian-speakers.  Dark-skinned southern Indian.</p>
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<p>You may have noticed, from media or co-workers, that Indian people have distinctly varied physical appearances, corresponding to historical invasions of the subcontinent beginning approximately 5,000 years ago.  From your study of world history, you know about the invasions of the Persians and Greeks of Alexander’s time, followed by the Central Asian Muslim peoples who created the famous Mughal Empire of Northern India.Fewer people know about the very earliest migration into Northern India by the Indo-European-language speakers who called themselves the Arya.  The <b>Arya</b> brought with them much of what we now consider the authentic culture of the subcontinent, from North Indian foods to the primary religious ideas of what is now known as Hinduism, and the concept of caste.</p>
<p>  These new peoples were much lighter-skinned than the Dravidian-speakers of south India, who were never conquered, so today’s Indo-Aryan people have a skin tone intermediate between Central Asian light and Dravidian dark. Indian people usually identify themselves as belonging to the ethnicity that reflects their region, which is also strongly correlated with language, so people identify themselves as Keralans speaking native Malayalam, or Tamils who speak Tamil, and so on.<b>Southwest India</b> functioned as a hub of international commerce and accumulated significant religious minorities of Christians and Jews, but the area of <b>Kerala</b> in particular was also the hub of trade with East Africa for much longer.  Carried by the shifting seasonal winds, merchants of Kerala and Africa set up trading posts and created families and communities in each other’s countries for over three millennia. Because of that history, there is an African-Indian ethnic presence in India, centered in the southwest.</p>
<p>India includes representatives of every major religion on Earth.</p>
<p> It is 80% Hindu and 13% Muslim, with smaller Christian, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Animist groups.  Kochi, located in Kerala, houses the oldest working synagogue on the subcontinent.  Several centuries old, it serves as a potent example of how history has made the <b>Kerala province</b> the most ethnically diverse on the subcontinent.  Both Christian and Jewish traders set up trade posts in Kerala to trade Indian goods to China and Europe.Religion is a central focus of identity for most of India’s people and until recently accounted for nearly all of the many festivals celebrated throughout the year.  <b>Diwali</b>, the Festival of Light, began as an exclusively religious festival, but has been embraced by many people of Indian descent around the world as a unifying ”Indian” festival, an opportunity to acquaint co-workers and non-Indian friends with a full range of Indian ethnic customs.</p>
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Celebrating Diwali

Lesson Summary

India is home to more ethnic groups, or native cultural groups, than any other nation on earth. The major language divide between northern Indo-European and southern Dravidian languages reflects historical invasions. India is home to every major religion on Earth, and Kerala is the most diverse province. Most Indians live in the geographical area of their ancestors, leading to a high level of regional cultural identity and cohesion.

Most Indians identify strongly with their region.

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